Retro: The Unquiet American


George Cukor
USA 1949
101 min

This comedy, directed by George Cukor from a script by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, is probably the best of all the features pairing Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. They play rival New York lawyers married to each another who take opposite sides in a trial occasioned by a woman (July Holliday) shooting her husband (Tom Ewell) for infidelity. It’s certainly the Hepburn-Tracy-movie with gender issues that has the most edge, and may even get closer to feminist positions than any other Hollywood A-picture of the period. But it’s far less radical than a Cukor feature starring Hepburn made 14 years earlier, Sylvia ­Scarlett – a film that subverted genre as well as gender by shuttling between comedy and tragedy as recklessly as a French New Wave picture avant la lettre, confusing the audience as well as most of the characters as Hepburn impersonated a boy flirting with both Cary Grant and Brian Aherne.

Why, then, is <![CDATA[<i>]]>Adam’s Rib<![CDATA[</i>]]> included in this series but not <![CDATA[<i>]]>Sylvia Scarlett?<![CDATA[</i>]]> The reason is simple: <![CDATA[<i>]]>Adam’s Rib<![CDATA[</i>]]> involves Americans, and unquiet ones at that, whereas Hepburn in the title role of Sylvia Scarlett plays a French girl traveling incognito with her father in England. Indeed, the various kinds of subversion allowed in this picture may have needed European settings in order to be conceivable – even though the film failed miserably at the box office. <![CDATA[<i>]]>Adam’s Rib<![CDATA[</i>]]>, on the other hand, was a huge success that introduced Holliday to the public and probably did the most to establish Hepburn and Tracy as a volatile romantic couple. Furthermore, this entertaining “battle of the sexes” coaxed a new song out of Cole Porter and received an Academy Award nomination for best script. Whether it actually does justice to the feminist issues it raises is questionable, but it certainly shows Tracy and Hepburn at their best while pretending to do so.

  • Katharine Hepburn - Susan Vance
  • Spencer Tracy
  • Judy Holliday
  • Tom EwelI
  • Jean Hagen
Lawrence Weingarten
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